What Gardening Can Teach Us About Behavior

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I’m a plant person. So, naturally, I was thinking about plants as we were readying a space to install raised beds last year. We have a shady backyard and while we chose the sunniest spot for the new beds, I was carefully monitoring how much sunlight it actually got so I knew which plants to put in. And that’s when I realized that there are some similarities between plants and animal behavior.


Environment matters

I mentioned that our backyard is shady so we didn’t have a choice to put our raised beds in an area with full sun (unless we wanted to chop down a tree, which we didn’t). That means that those beds house our veggies that need less sunlight: peas, salad greens, carrots, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. They’re loving it! Those plants are doing great and we’re getting to eat the rewards of that hard work. The environment is set up for those particular plants to thrive.


Definitely part shade! Fencing up to keep Oso from eating the veggies before we do.


But what would have happened if I had tried to put plants in those beds that required full sunlight? Some of them may survive, but they would never thrive. They would never do as well in partial light as they would in full sunlight. It wouldn’t matter how well I cared for them. It wouldn’t matter how much water they received or how much compost I added to their soil. They still would never thrive, no matter what I did. 

Environment matters. Each plant needs a particular type of environment in order to thrive. That’s true for our pets, too. Our pets may be okay in an array of different environments, but will likely only thrive and be the best they can be in certain ones.

We know this already for ourselves, whether consciously or not. When I think of this topic, I’m reminded of my professional wife and Pet Harmony co-owner, Emily. Emily and I met when we were working in southern Utah. She knew that she wasn’t a desert person even before moving there. She described to me that she had low-level stress all of the time by living in a desert and that she felt a sense of relief when she traveled somewhere greener. I didn’t really understand what she meant until I found myself experiencing that same relief when I would travel back to Illinois. I didn’t know I had low-level stress from living in a desert environment until I wasn’t in the desert anymore. 

It’s not that either of us did poorly living in the desert (well, Emily may say otherwise at times). But we would never be our best in that environment. It’s not the right living situation for us. The same can be true for our pets, too. A pet with sound sensitivity is going to have a harder time living in a city or living with certain kids. Dogs who come from a working line will do better in a household that loves doing things with their dogs and perhaps has more space. I’ve mentioned before that we adopted Oso as a behavior case. In our environment, he’s incredibly easy on a day-to-day basis. That wouldn’t be true in a different one, though (and was not true in several of his previous environments). Environment plays a role in behavior. 


What if my environment isn’t perfect for my pet?

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Uh oh. I know my environment isn’t the best for my pet. What do I do?”, you’re likely not alone. Many of the cases we see are situations in which that environment is simply not the best for that pet and that’s a large reason as to why they’re having problems. It wouldn’t be as hard in a different environment. 

One thing that we can do is management, and that can go a long way to improving the environment. For example, if we know our pet has a hard time with sounds and we live in the city then we can explore different sound masking options. Or, if we have a dog with leash reactivity to other dogs we could walk them in an industrial area where there isn’t likely to be other dogs. There are tweaks that we can make to improve our environment for our pets. 

This is also where behavior modification comes in. We can help our pets feel more comfortable in their environment and teach them skills that can help them interact with it. In some scenarios, these skills can help them be much closer to the best version of themselves; in others, it may only help make the situation okay instead of great. 

There are also several times where we’ve seen people choose the answer: change the environment. I did this with Oso when we moved back to Illinois. Our set-up in Utah was not ideal for him and we knew that when we brought him into our family. However, we also knew that we were moving in a few months and that we would be able to have a much better environment for him in Illinois. He’s one of the reasons we live in the house that we do today. I’ve seen other folks do the same when they’ve moved in the middle of their behavior modification journey and their pet’s behavior was a factor in their new location. Emily had a client who wasn’t planning on moving and then did so specifically for her dog! 

The question we get not infrequently when talking about changing the environment is about rehoming. That conversation is outside the scope of this particular post, but it is a viable option in some cases. Sometimes loving an individual means doing what is right for them, even if it’s hard for you. And sometimes what’s right is allowing a pet to be in an environment that’s set up for them to thrive even if you can’t be the one to provide it. 


Accepting our pets for who they are

Sometimes the issue is not necessarily the environment our pet lives in, but the environments we want them to be a part of. For example, a dog who’s afraid of kids might do quite well in their home environment which doesn’t have kids but it would be disastrous to take them to a family party in which there are a lot of kids running around. Or, a pet with generalized anxiety might do well with their day-to-day routine and home, but would likely not do as well traveling cross country in an RV with their family. We need to accept our pets for who they are and not put them into environments in which we know they won’t do well. We wouldn’t ask a plant to need less sunlight, would we? (Okay, I actually make that request of plants all the time and then they start dying so it’s not a successful request.)


Now what?

  • Evaluate your environment objectively. Try to keep emotion out of it as much as possible (I know it can be hard!) Is your environment perfect for your pet? If yes, great! If no, keep on reading. 
  • Consider how you can manage your environment to help make it closer to what your pet needs. Start implementing those management strategies!
  • Evaluate how those management strategies are going. Is it sufficient or do you need to go to the next step of teaching skills and modifying behavior? If it’s sufficient, great! If not, keep on reading. 
  • Work with a behavior consultant to determine which skills will help your pet and your particular situation. A professional will be able to get you results faster than if you were to go through it on your own. Email us at [email protected] if you need help or get started immediately with our Beginning Behavior Modification on-demand course! Even remotely we can still evaluate your environment; we’ve mastered the wobbly Zoom house tour without getting seasick!


Happy training!